published in 1990
Eric is a bit of an odd duck in the Discworld, out of place amongst the increasing sophistication of the last couple of novels coming before it, almost a throwback to the very first few books. It’s a lot shorter, a lot less serious and a lot more written for comedic effect than its immediate predecessors were. All of which can be explained by the simple fact that it was first published as an illustrated book, written around a series of Josh Kirby illustrations, which was later adapted into standard Discworld paperback format, losing most of its charm in the process.
A word about Josh Kirby is needed at this place. Kirby was of course the cover artist for all the Discworld novels up until his death, Thief of Time being his last novel. His work was incredibly caricatural in nature, with very exaggerated figures and bright colours, not really to everybody’s tastes. Some might have found it a bit childish even, but I always liked it. To me his covers were Discworld, especially the early novels when it wasn’t all taken that seriously yet even by Pratchett himself. Therefore it made perfect sense to do an illustrated Discworld story with his drawings, just like his replacement as cover artist, Paul Kidby, would do with The Last Hero.
News to make the blood of any Discworld fan curdle:
What happened next is that Pratchett collapsed. “I had to kneel on the back seat of the taxi and give him CPR,” Rob says. “It was fingers down throat stuff. He nearly died.”
According to the interview extracts in the New Statesman, if the unthinkable does happen, which looks more and more likely, his daughter will take over the series:
The author tells me that he will be happy for her to continue writing the Discworld books when he is no longer able to do so. “The Discworld is safe in my daughter’s hands,” Pratchett assures me.
For any science fiction or fantasy reader this may not be a comfort, knowing what somebody like Brian Herbert made of his father’s legacy, but I do trust Terry Pratchett enough to give Rhianna Pratchett a chance. I just hope it will be some time yet before she gets it…
published in 1989
A reader asks:
I’ve uh, never read any Pratchett before and have been wanting to tackle the Discworld novels for sometime but I’ve been intimidated by the reading order issue. It actually doesn’t help matters any that this is one of the most frequently asked questions, it all seems so confusing. Where to begin?
A good question. With a series that has almost forty novels, quite a few spinoff books and theatre, movie and television adaptations, the Discworld can look daunting to get into. Yet it’s not as bad as it looks. There are a couple of natural starting points: The Colour of Magic of course, but that’s not very representative for the rest of the series. A better starting point might be Guards! Guards! as that is the novel in which the whole Sam Vines/Night Watch/Ankh Morpork sub series was set up that has dominated the Discworld ever since. But of course since we’re discussing this question in a review of Pyramids, I’m going to make a case for it as the best starting point for getting into the Discworld.
published in 1988
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.
The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in for more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday’.
The opening paragraphs of Wyrd Sisters are a good indication of the rest of the book. This is MacBeth: Discworld style and the witches do not intend to stick to the script. That’s because Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are sensible witches and while the third member of the coven is a bit wet — as in, she actually believes in such things like covens — Magrat Garlick still has a steel core of good Lancrian common sense. They know better than to meddle in affairs (well, mostly) or dance with demons, never mind doing it skyclad. Yet when the king is murdered, his baby heir disappears and the usurper duke turns out not be just a bit evil, but actually uncaring about the land, they’re dragged into meddling against their own will.
published in 1988
Sourcery is the fifth Discworld novel and the first one after the initial two novels to star Rincewind again. Over time fan opinion has switched to thinking the Rincewind novels are the weakest in the series, but I’ve always liked them myself and I think Sourcery holds up as well as any of the other early novels. It’s the first novel in which there’s a real villain, the first tiem we get to see what makes a real villain in Pratchett’s eyes.
On a surface level there are some similarities to Equal Rites: again there’s a powerful, untrained magic user coming to Ankh Morpork to shake up the Unseen University, but this time he’s not so benign. Coin is not the eight son of an eight son, but the eight son of a wizard. And when a wizard has an eight son, that son doesn’t become a wizard himself, but a sourcerer, a source of magic. The magic he yields is not the tame, nice magic which is the only kind of magic the Discworld has known for ians, but wild magic, the magic from the dawn of times. Not perhaps the kind of magic you’d want a ten year old boy to have, even if his dead father has possessed his wizard staff to give him counsel.
published in 1987
If anybody can lay claim to being the first breakout star of the Discworld series, it has to be Death. Started off as a bog standard personification of an abstract concept, managed to work his way up through several cameos in the first three books to this, his first start turn in a novel. Four more would follow, though none in the past decade. He’s not quite his cuddly self here yet, still a bit on the evil side, not as human as in e.g. Hogfather.
Nevertheless Death is being humanised, or why else would he end up looking for an apprentice? Anthropomorphical personages don’t need successors, now do they? Yet still Death ends up on a dusty market square in a small village at the stroke of midnignt taking on a most unlikely apprentice: Mort. Mort is one of those boys who are all knees and legs, who think too much for what they’re doing. An apprentice with Death is literally his last opportunity, but as his father said, there may be opportunities for a good apprentice to eventually take over his master’s business, though Mort is not sure he wants to.
published in 1987
With the third novel in the series, Equal Rites, it became clear that the Discworld was more than just the sum of its characters. Gone were Rincewind, Twoflower and the Luggage, as an entire new setting and cast turned up. This wasn’t something that had been done much — or ever — in fantasy before, not often done after either. It must’ve seemed a bit of a gamble at the time, but this freedom to change protagonists and settings is what made the Discworld series, what has been keeping it from going stale for so long. If you don’t like one particular subseries, there are several others that you can read. Of course it also helps that Pratchett has been such a good writer for so long…
Equal Rites is the first Witches story, though the Granny Weatherwax that shows up here isn’t quite the one we get to know better in the later novels, differing somewhat even from how she’s portrayed in Wyrd Sisters three books onwards. The plot of the story is all about how if you’re a wizard on the verge of dying and looking for an eight son of an eight son to hand your staff over to, it helps to not be too hasty and check that eight son of an eight son isn’t actually a daughter…
The Light Fantastic
published in 1986
The Light Fantastic is of course the second Discworld novel and a direct sequel to The Colour of Magic starting in media res with Rincewind having fallen off the Disc. To his own amazement he does not actually fall to his death, but is saved by the Great Octavo Spell that had taken up residence in his head. It turns out that this hadn’t actually been an accident all those years ago that had gotten it in his head and all other magic spells afraid to stay near it, but had been in preparation for just this moment. The Discworld is heading towards a huge red star and unless the spell and its seven counterparts are said at exactly the right time, the world will be destroyed…
There’s three years between the publication of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic and it’s noticable in Pratchett’s writing, which has improved a lot between the two novels. It’s also much less parody orientated, but still nowhere near the Discworld we’ve gotten to know and love. We do get a first glimmer of some of the subjects that Pratchett would engage more fully in later novels, including his humanitarianism. For the moment however, the Discworld is still much closer to a standard fantasy world than to what it would later become.
The Colour of Magic
published in 1983
The days are getting shorter, the nights are longer and I got the desire to reread some old favourites. It’s the time of year for comfort reading, as you may notice in my reading patterns from year to year and this time I wanted to lose myself in something actually good, rather than going for something mindless. Which is why I decided to reread the Discworld series from the beginning, though I won’t guarantee I’ll finish the series.
Which brings me to The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel. Over the years it has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation amongst Pratchett fans as not being up to the standards of the series, not being as funny or interesting, not a good place to start the series as a new reader. All of which has a kernel of truth, but at the same time it was the novel that kickstarted the whole series and if it really had no merit, it would’ve been the last book in the series. It is rough and ready, it doesn’t quite fit in with the Discworld as it would evolve over the course of the series, but it still has a certain charm.